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Regional Advantage Revisited

I had the dubious pleasure of spending several days last week inFlorida at a conference while my New England home was getting hit with a foot or more of snow. A pleasure for all of the obvious reasons; dubious because I had to shovel out my car at the airport upon my return, then shovel out my driveway when I got home.

But the exercise made me once again think of Regional Advantage, Annalee Saxenian's uneven tome of a dozen years ago that compared the cultures of Silicon Valley and the Boston technology corridor. Her thesis was that culture of Silicon Valley was more open and freewheeling than that of Boston, and that resulted in a more dynamic and flexible high technology economy. It made a kind of intuitive sense, although from the standpoint of science was impossible to prove. And it wasn't entirely clear that the Boston high tech economy was any less dynamic than that of Silicon Valley.

Most relevant to my current circumstances, what was it that brought technology to Silicon Valley but entertainment to Orlando? Was it culture? Unlikely; unlike Boston or New York, both regions boast little more than a single generation of economic success. Perhaps something happened in that last generation or two to make these areas more appealing and, well, advantageous.

I thought about that as I endured the onslaught of theme parks and tourists in Orlando. Before the advent of inexpensive air conditioning, the area around me was brush land and swamp. Before inexpensive air travel, it was a vacation luxury that few could afford. It was clear that climate disadvantages could be overcome, and cultures built from scratch over a short period of time.

So it seems to me that circumstances well beyond a purported culture spell the relative economic success of one area over another. For example, weather and other natural characteristics may be more important. For example, Silicon Valley has a wonderful climate and great scenery. Orlando has a reasonable winter climate and lots of sunshine. Both have a high potential for natural disasters (earthquakes and hurricanes), but that doesn't seem to be a significant factor in innovation and economic success.

It might be possible to draw some broad generalizations on regional advantages. It seems to help to have natural transportation (waterways) or natural beauty (mountains). Good weather is a bonus, or at least warm weather, as long as it can be mitigated with air conditioning. Domination by a single company or industry looks like a negative.

Today, Regional Advantage seems like a quaint anachronism, missing the point entirely about the advantage of various regions based on a shared culture or climate. There is probably much less of a cultural difference between Boston and Silicon Valley than there is between Orlando and Hyderabad, for example. Yet all of them share a common future.

Serendipitously, perhaps, Saxenian is coming out with a new tome next spring, entitled New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy. I will withhold final judgment until I have read it, but it feels like the same old thesis being recast to meet changing world dynamics.

After all, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 12/18/2005 at 1:15 PM


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